African Penguin Fact File


African penguins are black on their back and white on the front with a black head surrounded by a circle of white. This colouration is known as countershading and helps to protect them from predators. From below their light underside blends with the sky and from above the black back bends with the dark ocean. Across the chest there is a black band and a pattern of spots which is unique in each penguin species. The feet are also black.

The beak is black and sharply pointed. Above the eyes is a pink gland. When the penguin gets hot these become pinker as blood is sent to them so it can be cooled by the air.

Males are slightly larger than females. On average they weigh between 2 and kg(4.4lbs-11lbs) and measure 60-68cm (24-27in).


African penguins feed mainly on pilchards and anchovies in the wild with some other pelagic fish and marine invertebrates such as squid and small crustaceans occasionally entering into their diet. They will consume an average of 540g (1.2lb) of food per day. While raising chicks they may increase this to 1kg ( 2.2lb) per day.

When a commercial pilchard fishery collapsed in 1960 African penguins began to favor anchovies. While this diet appears sufficient it does provide lower amounts of fat and protein which may cause issues in the future. Penguins which are not healthy will normally not successfully raise chicks as hunting is energy intensive.

African grey

Scientific Name

Spheniscus demersus

Conservation Status



60-69cm (24-27in)


2-4kg (4.4-11lbs)


10-15 years



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This species is the only penguin found in Africa. They live on 24 islands between Namibia and South Africa. Dyer Island near Kleinbaii, South Africa hosts the largest colony. There is also a pair of mainland colonies near Cape Town and one in Namibia . It is believed these colonies only survive as humans have reduced prey numbers near them.


They make their home on rocky islands where they will nest in a sheltered burrow so they can escape the sun.


African penguins mate for life. Breeding occurs throughout most of the year but peaks around March to May in South Africa and November to December in Namibia.

After mating two eggs will be laid in a nest with their preferred nest being one dug in a layer of guano which maintains a suitable temperature for the eggs. Due to humans decimating these guano deposits this method has become unfeasible for most penguins. Now they will make their nest in the sand in the open or in a nest box which may have been provided.

Both parents incubate the eggs for 40 days, after which only one of the eggs will normally hatch. For the next 30 days one of the parents will always be with the chick looking over it. After this it is placed in a crèche with other chicks for the day which provides protection from predators. This allows the parents to go out to sea and feed.

Chicks begin life covered in a light grey coat which is made up of downy feathers.

Depending on the quality and availability of food the chick will fledge at between 60 and 130 days old. They will go out into the sea on their own before returning to the colony at between 12 and 22 months to molt into their adult plumage. This molt takes about 20 days and during that time they will not eat as their feathers are not waterproof and they can’t enter the sea.

Sexual maturity is achieved at approximately 4 years of age.


On land African penguins come under threat from caracals, leopards, mongooses, snakes, sacred ibis and kelp gulls. These hunters mostly go after eggs and chicks. In the water they come under treat from sharks and Cape Fur Seals. Humans taking away the guano deposits, spilling oil in their habitat and exploiting their eggs for food has also caused a severe decline.

Their call sounds like that of a donkey and is used during courtship rituals.

Once a year the African penguin molts. Over the 20 days that this takes they cannot enter the sea to feed as their feathers are not waterproof. This means they may lose half their weight.

Quick facts

The African penguin has more feathers than any other bird.

Other names for the African penguin include the black footed penguin, cape penguin and the jackass penguin as a result of their call.

The word spheniscus in their scientific name means wedge and comes from the Greek word sphen. Demersus translates from Latin as plunging.

African penguin

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Photo Credits


By shi zhao (originally posted to Flickr as DSC_3327) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


By Dick Daniels ( (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons


BirdLife International. 2018. Spheniscus demersus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T22697810A132604504. Downloaded on 01 December 2020.


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